Today, TLiW is thankful for Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley on Twitter), a Houston lawyer who writes about the Houston Texans for the Houston Chronicle online and a general interest, non-Texans blog at her own site. Stephanie is a sports blog O.G., and one of the very best.
I answered her Qs with my As at her TexansChick Houston Chronicle blog, and after adding her own must-read analysis, she’s provided her own As for us, here:
What are differences between this Texans team and previous ones? And why are Andre Johnson's numbers (with the exception of last week) down this year?
“The Texans offense with few exceptions hasn't had to open up much because with better defense, the team has played with many early leads. Due to salary cap concerns, they had to replace the starting right guard and right tackle, which would also make a team lean toward a more conservative, less-risk filled approach. The strength of the 2012 Texans is their experienced tight ends relative to their young 3-5 WRs, so they can use their TEs to help the offensive line but also to make pass plays and create mismatches.
The Texans have three tight ends that are listed in the top 15 in TE efficiency: Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and James Casey. Casey is not built like a traditional tight end and came into the league as a do-everything athlete after his remarkable time at Rice University. (Nickname: "Thor"). The Texans use him as a hybrid TE, FB, WR and line him up in various ways. They run/pass out of the same looking formations and create matchup problems for defenses, especially given that no teams look like what the Texans are doing this year.
Andre Johnson is still Andre Johnson. He's made key move-the-sticks plays, and big plays downfield. But this year he has functioned mostly as a "Break Glass In Case of Emergency" option. If the Texans have a big lead, there's no reason to take downfield shots at him. In the game against the Jaguars, he faced some unusual single coverage matchups. In addition, with the Texans down by 14 late, they started running more 3-4 wide receiver sets with a more open offense like they used to do a lot when their defense was terrible. Eventually, if the Texans decide they are going to throw on teams, Andre Johnson is going to get his.
He's a very unselfish player and would rather have wins over stats.
In general, the Texans offense is all about taking advantage of what the defense gives you. Some defenses load up against RB Arian Foster. Some defenses aim at taking Andre Johnson out of the game. So each week the targets are different...the yard can be all about Arian Foster or the TEs or the #2 WR or the Andre Johnson show. They have many ways they can be efficient in moving the ball, and I think Texans coach Gary Kubiak is underrated as a playcaller. (The old "It's the players when things are going well, and the playcalling when things aren't." If you talk to the Texans players, they have a great deal of respect for what Kubiak does).
It's also worth mentioning with Andre Johnson that both he and Matt Schaub were coming off of injury filled seasons where neither one of them had a full camp. Johnson says he is feeling more like himself as the season progresses.”
What are key injuries for this team or players coming off of injury?
“The number one concern is whether standout CB Johnathan Joseph is going to be available for this game given his hamstring issue coming out of the previous game. He's usually the corner who is matched up with the best WR when there's a clear dominant #1. The Texans haven't played a lot of snaps with him off of the field.
Probably the greatest loss for the Texans this year was losing ILB Brian Cushing for the year to an ACL injury suffered against the Jets. He is a physical player against the run and the pass and gave Wade Phillips flexibility for what he could call on defense. Against better offensive teams, his aggressive play in the middle of the field will be missed. Tim Dobbins has played well in replacement, but suffered a shoulder injury after an interception return that makes his return uncertain.
Darryl Sharpton was expected to play alongside Cushing in 2012, but had a hard time coming back from a quad injury suffered last year. He had his first game against the Jaguars after coming off of IR and played well despite the rust. He played well before his injury, and Texans fans will be watching if he is the same player now. He will likely get the start on Thursday.”
What do you think are the strengths of this Texans team?
“Balance. If you look at the best teams in 2012, they are very balanced between offense and defense. In recent years, there's been a trend for teams to be dominant on one side of the ball and use that dominance to overpower opponents. (Typical examples: Patriots, Colts). This year, there's a number of good teams that are balanced: Texans, 49ers, Broncos, Seahawks, Packers. Teams that can win through both their offensive and defensive play.
Even within their offense and defense, they are balanced. They're run/pass playcalling is almost 50/50, and they can be very effective doing either one or both. The Texans defense is balanced as well, being good against both the run and the pass.
The Texans defense third down percentage numbers allowed is absurdly low. Currently the Texans defense leads the league in fewest a 3rd down percentage made at 26%. To put in context, the Bears and 49ers are 2nd and 3rd in that number respectively at 32%, 33%.
The Texans are also 1st in the NFL at Time of Possession (excluding OT) at 34:38. The defense has been doing a great job at forcing punts, and the Texans are usually good for a number of clock chewing offensive drives each game and at the end of games with a lead.”
What concerns Texans fans?
“Special Teams. This is the biggest concern by far. This unit has a number of new faces and new a kicker and punter who weren't the plan A's going into the season. Coverage units rarely worked all together in the preseason, and they did not appear to be a cohesive group going into the season. The unit has had some untimely penalties, and sometimes have created problems with the field position battle. They've looked better in recent weeks, and the hope is that with more time together, they won't lose the Texans games.
The right side of the offensive line. The Texans have been doing an unusual rotation on the right side of their line. Usually it has been fine, but in a couple of games it has led to some cringeworthy shots against Matt Schaub and difficult yards for Arian Foster.
Pass rush other than JJ Watt. Second year defensive linemen JJ Watt has been having an absurdly productive year. They move him up and down the line to give him good matchups, and he often takes advantage. The question for some is whether the other linemen/OLB can take advantage of situations where JJ Watt is being double teamed. Given the wild productivity of the Texans defense in 2012, that might be a quibbling concern.”
What do you think is the best way to beat the Texans?
“Stop the run and don't overpursue such that the best playaction/zone running team in the league kills you. Disguise coverages and bring infrequent, delayed blitzes to keep Matt Schaub from finding a rhythm. Bring quality pass rush with only four rushers and make sure Schaub makes few clean throws.”
What do you think the Texans gameplan will be against the Lions?
“The Texans focus mostly on what they like to do. On defense, stop the run, don't get beat by the deep play, take plenty of hard shots on the quarterback. Give extra attention to what the opponent does best, in this case, make it difficult to throw to Calvin Johnson.
On offense, see what the defense is giving you with the scripted plays at the beginning of the game, and then take advantage of defensive tendencies and matchups. Throw early in the game to amass a big lead and then run a lot late to chew clock.”
Who are some Texans players that Lions fans may not know who may have an impact on the game either in a negative or positive way?
“I've already mentioned the tight ends. Specific to the line, Ben Jones is a rookie who is rotationally playing right guard. He was a quality center in college, didn't play guard but started working on it during camp. He rotates with Antoine Caldwell, and both of them have had some up and down moments. Right tackle Ryan Harris rotates with Derek Newton, and Harris sometimes reports as an eligible receiver in red zone situations.
Those from Michigan may be familiar with rookie WR Keshawn Martin who went to Michigan State. He had his first touchdown last week, and had his best game as a returner last week. The Texans are slowly giving their inexperienced WRs more work, and if this game becomes a shootout, it is easy to hear other receiving target names being called other than just Andre Johnson because of how much Schaub distributes the ball.”